The Women Who Programmed the First Modern Computer

As a history nerd, one of my recurring interests is the parts of history that never make it into textbooks. You’ve probably heard of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race, as documented in the excellent book and movie Hidden Figures.

Recently I found a story that is both similar in content and documentation (as in overlooked and forgotten).

There was a time when calculating ballistic trajectories was done by hand, taking as long as 40 hours. In the early days of World War II, this laborious process presented the U.S. Army with two challenges — replace all the male mathematicians who were now directly involved in combat, and find a faster way. The answer to both challenges was women mathematicians.

At the war’s beginning, the call went out from the Ballistic Research Laboratory, “Looking for Women Math Majors,” to calculate the trajectories. Then at the war’s end, they were hired to help develop ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first general-purpose computer. Once perfected, ENIAC reduced the trajectory calculation time from 40 hours to ten seconds. During this work, of course, they were forced to endure all the indignities suffered by pioneering women, including being forgotten immediately thereafter.

No more. The book Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer by Kathy Kleiman has brought this remarkable story to light. After more than two decades of research, these technological revolutionaries will finally be given their place in history.

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